From our bedroom window in Brooklyn, we’re lucky enough to have a view of the Manhattan skyline, replete with the Empire State Building. The famous skyscraper changes the colors of its display according to the seasons and holidays, and I know that in a few weeks, it will be green. Years ago, this would have meant next to nothing to me; the green would have brought to mind four-leaf clovers and leprechauns, and the dreaded St. Patrick’s Day parade, which was synonymous for me with traffic jams and drunken revelry.
But now my perception of the holiday has changed drastically (although I never have been and probably never will be a fan of parades). After all, my partner Joseph is as Irish as Irish gets, and not just because of his beautiful copper hair and blue eyes (both inherited by our toddler son CC). Born of humble means, both of Joseph’s parents immigrated from Ireland to the U.S. and set about building the American Dream for themselves and their growing family, complete with a neat little house in Queens and jobs that they were passionate about. When Joseph talks about his family, it reminds me of my own, both the Puerto Rican and Jewish sides. My mother’s grandfather fled a shtetl in Poland and worked for ten years to bring his wife and daughter (my grandmother) to be with him in the U.S. My father boarded a ship from Puerto Rico with his mother when he was just 10 years old to make a life in the U.S. Both my parents grew up in the hardscrabble South Bronx and realized their own version of the American Dream.
I’m touched by the similarities in Joseph’s family history and mine… and I also can’t help but notice that a lot of stereotypes about the Irish are strikingly similar to those about Hispanics. Last week, I got fired up when Urban Outfitters came under fire for a line of apparel designed for St. Patrick’s Day revelers. One Urban Outfitters baseball cap depicts a figure vomiting with the words “IRISH YOGA” above and “DOWNWARD FACING UPCHUCK” below. A bright green t-shirt blares “KISS ME, I’M DRUNK OR IRISH OR WHATEVER.” ABCNews reported that “a search of the word ‘Irish’ on the clothing brand’s website turns up 13 products—shirts, beer glasses, shot glasses, a flask and sunglasses shaped as shamrocks and beer glasses.”
Another news story that broke this week at almost the same time as the Urban Outfitters story was about CafePress.com, an online retailer. CafePress was called upon to remove merchandise that was blatantly anti-Mexican. How blatant? How about a T-shirt that says “NO MORE MEXICANS”? Or a bumper sticker that reads “EVERY JUAN GO HOME”? According to MSNBC.com, CafePress removed the ability to search for such merchandise with terms like “anti-Mexican,” but a lot of the products themselves are still available.
There’s no question that not only do pervasive stereotypes exist about both the Irish and Hispanic cultures, but that the stereotypes are often very similar. That there is now Irish heritage in my family because of Joseph and CC has only heightened my awareness. A list of the top ten stereotypes, misconceptions, and just plain negative perceptions:
1. Parades Without Pride
Many New Yorkers dread both the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade (mocked in shows like Seinfeld and Law & Order) and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. But many don’t see that both parades stem from pride in a culture that is rich with history as well as tremendous contributions to the development of America as we know it (often unrecognized).
2. Huge Families…
A pervasive stereotype about both Irish and Hispanic families is that they’re expansive—to say the least. That’s news to my Dad, who was raised an only child by his single mom, as well as Joseph, who grew up with a mere two brothers.
3. … All Under One Roof
Popular culture would have us believe that not only do Hispanics and the Irish breed like bunnies, but that each and every family member lives crammed under the same roof amidst hysterical cries of “Ay, dios mio” or “Blarney!” (Again, this is news to Irish and Hispanic families whose households are neither humongous or hysterical.)
4. Saints (and Dios) Preserve Us
Popular culture would also have us believe that Hispanic and Irish people are not just fervently religious across the board, but a lot more magical and mystical than any other folks. Why else would Irish mothers rub those rosaries so raw, and Latinas be able to predict otherwise unforeseeable doom so precisely, in just about every movie and television show? While it’s true that Irish and Hispanic cultures have a long standing association with Catholicism, this association is as diverse as the cultures themselves, and not limited to blind zealotry—Hispanics and the Irish are also at the forefront of pushing the Church to move forward in more progressive ways.
5. Drink and Drugs
Latinos have their drugs —picture Al Pacino literally diving into a mountain of cocaine in Scarface as Cuban Tony Montana, or dealing drugs as the Puerto Rican Carlito in Carlito’s Way—and the Irish have their whiskey (whether it’s stolen, purchased, or bootlegged). And never shall either be parted from their substance of choice. (Change may be in the air, however. Irish-Americans have voiced anger regarding the Urban Outfitters St. Patrick’s Day apparel. And early in 2012, a character on the ABC sitcom Work It played by Puerto Rican actor Amaury Nolasco contemplated a job at a pharmaceutical company, musing, “I’m Puerto Rican… I’d be great at selling drugs.” As reported by The Huffington Post, demonstrators staged a protest outside of ABC studios, and two Puerto Rican members of congress called for an apology from the network. It was a great example of a group effort aimed at calling out discrimination. Work It has since been canceled.)
6. Misguided Mascots
Just as an entire cuisine can be boiled down via stereotype to a boiled potato, so can the boundless aspects of a culture be boiled down to one foolish mascot. In the case of the Irish, it’s that mischievous leprechaun that advertises things like cereal, sports, and even the occasional horror movie. Latinos get a yapping, heavily accented Chihuahua—often in a sombrero. Remember the Taco Bell Chihuahua?
7. Potatoes, Rice, and Beans
Despite a rich, textured history of food in both cultures, somehow the Irish are still synonymous with potatoes (the blander the more stereotypical), and Hispanics have their good ol’ rice and beans—or perhaps a taco. It’s been a long time since the Irish had to depend on potatoes as a dietary staple, and Latin cuisine goes way beyond arroz y frijoles. True foodies recognize the huge impact of the star chefs of the Latin food revolution, like Jose Garces, Guillermo Tellez, and Douglas Rodriguez (who pioneered the internationally adored Nuevo Latino Cusine).
8. Sneaky and Scary…
While certain Latin and Irish heroes have certainly been heralded in literature and film, we all know that when it comes to being sneaky and conniving in search of that next flask of whiskey, the Irish always take the honor in movies and TV shows. Similarly, the scary Puerto Rican or Mexican with a neck tattoo and gold chain is often America’s favorite villain. But while they still pop up on crime show series, there are a few bright spots, such as Sofia Vergara’s hilarious matriarchal turn on Modern Family and Eva Longoria as a well-to-do Desperate Housewife (unfortunately in its last season).
9. … and Lawless and Lazy
The perception of Latinos and the Irish as living outside the law is directly connected to a grievous misconception that the people of these ethnic backgrounds are uneducated and lazy, and that they fail to contribute to society in a meaningful and important way. Recently, in San Antonio, Texas, a mural depicting a Mexican man asleep under a wide-brimmed sombrero was proposed for the wall of a drive-in theater, and speaks of the perception of Mexicans as lazy. The Hispanic community of the South Texas region reacted vehemently, opposing the mural and staging a protest—distinctly proactive behavior from people determined to see this stereotype crumble.
10. Ultimately Unrecognized
The general failure to recognize the contributions that the Irish and Latinos have made—and continue to make—to the U.S. as we know it is perhaps the most profound—and the saddest—stereotype of them all. Whether it’s in culture, cuisine, labor, or diversity, they have not only worked to transform and develop their own regions and countries, but have made an indelible mark on the U.S. that is as undeniable as it is vital to America’s history and its continuing development. And that’s a source of pride that goes way beyond mascots and mashed potatoes.